The Library of Congress now is stretching its reach to Saudi Arabia and the history of Arabic science.
The agency has partnered with a Saudi university to help prepare for a “World Digital Library” that will put online important documents from around the globe. Together, the two entities will convene a group of experts to map out a plan for digitizing Arab and Islamic scientific texts.
The effort to create a world library dates back to 2005, but this latest partnership is unique — it marks a first step toward deciding what content will be included in the ambitious project. The three existing “working groups” are all focused on the framework: the technical, the project philosophy and the best practices.
Now it’s time for the “nitty gritty,” project director John Van Oudenaren said. The prototype is complete, he said, and officials now need to decide the parameters of the content.
“You have to involve people, and you have to get their views,” he said. “It’s building consensus about the how as much as the what.”
The project may seem far from the Library’s American focus, but the agency actually has turned its eye to global books and artifacts for decades. It has seven offices overseas in cities such as Cairo, Egypt, and Jakarta, Indonesia, as well as tens of millions of foreign objects in its collections.
That world view has been threatened by budget constraints in recent years. During a recent budget hearing, Library officials voiced their worry that some field offices would have to close.
But the World Digital Project is a cooperative effort funded by private entities. It connects the Library to countries like Russia and Egypt and provides an opportunity to develop needed technology. In October, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization joined the effort.
With the Library’s new partnership, the project will get $1 million from the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, a graduate school set to open in 2009. It is a pet project of Saudi King Abdullah, who has invested billions of dollars in an effort to catch up with scientific research in Western countries.
The school will take up 9,000 acres on the coast of the Red Sea, hosting international professors and teaching both men and women. The Library’s effort to digitize Arab scientific texts fits well with the university’s aims — namely, building a reputation for quality research.
So far, the school has jump-started that reputation through partnerships with well- respected schools and organizations — usually by giving out large donations. Colleges like Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley are helping recruit faculty and design curriculums in exchange for millions of dollars for research.
Now, university officials are hoping the World Digital Library will publicize the scientific efforts of the Arab world.
That would help in the school’s mission to remind the world “that this is not the first time the Arab world has made great scientific and technological contributions to humankind,” Nadhmi Al-Nasr, the interim president of the King Abdullah University, said in a statement.
“Through this partnership with the Library of Congress and with many other universities, museums, and collections around the world,” he said, “we look forward to helping make this great history of Islamic science and technology available to all people through the World Digital Library.”